Despite exit, Nadal enjoys relative success at ATP Finals

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LONDON — Rafael Nadal is leaving the ATP Finals with a big trophy, even though he failed again to secure the title at the elite tournament.

Nadal was eliminated in the group stage of the season-ending event on Friday, but could still look back on a successful week after edging out Novak Djokovic for the year-end No. 1 ranking.

To mark that achievement, Nadal was presented on court with a trophy by the ATP at the O2 Arena after he beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in his final round-robin match. It’s the fifth time he finishes the year as No. 1, and enough to make sure he leaves London with a feeling of satisfaction despite the early exit.

“Having this with me is something unexpected and very emotional for me,” Nadal said. “Honestly, after all the things that I went through in my career in terms of injuries, I never thought that at the age of 33 +, I would have this trophy in my hands again.”

Nadal tied with Djokovic, Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors with five year-end No. 1s, one behind Pete Sampras’ record.

Djokovic’s chances to overtake Nadal and equal Sampras’ mark ended when he lost to Federer on Thursday and was eliminated.

At 33, Nadal is the oldest man to top the season’s final ranking list. What’s even more remarkable is that this one came 11 years after he first finished as No. 1 in 2008 – a record-long gap.

“To have this trophy with me with this big gap between the first time until today, 11 years, is a big thing,” Nadal said. “I don’t know if somebody did it or not, but it is something difficult, because 11 years since the first time until the fifth is a big number.”

Nadal finished the group-stage with a 2-1 record but that wasn’t enough to advance after defending champion Alexander Zverev beat Daniil Medvedev in the final round-robin match to finish ahead of the Spaniard based on the tournament’s tiebreaker rules.

If Zverev had lost, Nadal would have faced Federer in the semifinals for another installment in their long-running rivalry.

Nadal also has two more Grand Slam titles to look back on this year, the French Open and U.S. Open, bringing his total to 19. But he has never won the ATP Finals despite qualifying for a 15th year in a row. He has had to pull out of the tournament on six occasions because of injuries and reached the final only twice, the last time in 2013.

Still, the Spaniard was more than happy with his progress this week after coming into the event without hardly any practice time since an abdominal injury forced him to pull out of the Paris Masters semifinals this month.

He looked far from his best in losing to Zverev in his opener on Monday. But in his second match, he saved a match point while trailing 5-1 in the third set against Medvedev before completing an improbable comeback, and he came from a set down to beat Tsitsipas on Friday as well.

Before the ATP Finals, Nadal had not completed a tournament since winning the U.S. Open. But his rapid improvement in London has been a big confidence booster ahead of the Davis Cup at home in Madrid next week.

“I played two matches close to three hours, but in some ways that helps, because if I’m able to hold these kind of matches … that’s what I needed because my preparation was not the ideal one for here,” Nadal said. “I go to Madrid with positive confidence that I am playing better and better. For me that was important, more than being in that semifinals or not.”

Top-ranked Swiatek, Kvitova reach quarters at Agel Open

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OSTRAVA, Czech Republic – Top-ranked Iga Swiatek advanced to the quarterfinals of the Agel Open after Ajla Tomljanovic retired with an injury during the second set of their second-round match on Wednesday.

The Polish U.S. Open champion was leading 7-5, 2-2 when her Australian opponent retired due to a left knee injury at the indoor hardcourt event in the eastern Czech city of Ostrava.

Swiatek, who also won the French Open in June, will next face American qualifier Catherine McNally or Karolina Muchova.

Home favorite and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova upset second-seeded Paula Badosa of Spain 7-6 (4), 6-4 to set up a quarterfinal against this year’s Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina, who rallied to eliminate Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-5.

Czech players also won the last two first-round matches on the schedule.

Muchova knocked out seventh-seeded Beatriz Haddad Maia of Brazil 6-4, 6-4 and Barbora Krejcikova ousted American Shelby Rogers 6-2, 6-2 for her sixth straight victory after she won the Tallinn Open on Sunday for her first WTA title of the year.

Djokovic near flawless to reach second round in Astana

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan – Novak Djokovic delivered a near-flawless performance to ease into the second round of the Astana Open with a 6-1, 6-1 win over Cristian Garin on Wednesday as he goes for a third straight tournament title.

Djokovic dropped just six points on his serve and won the last five games to seal the win in just 62 minutes.

Djokovic is coming off a victory in Tel Aviv last week and – aside from a match at the Laver Cup – the Wimbledon champion hasn’t lost since the French Open quarterfinals.

“From the start to the end, (it was) a great performance,” Djokovic said. “Playing in a new tournament, different conditions, the first match is never easy. Obviously you are looking to see how you are going to adapt, but I did it perfectly, really, played as well as I can.”

Djokovic will next play Botic van de Zandschulp.

Top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz lost in the opening round on Tuesday in his first match since winning the U.S. Open title to capture the No. 1 spot.

Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the quarterfinals by beating 19-year-old Luca Nardi of Italy 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3). Nardi was playing just his fifth tour-level main-draw match and impressed the third-seeded Greek, who didn’t earn a single break point.

“He’s a player that can play very well in the future,” Tsitsipas said. “There weren’t any holes. I believe today he was able to sustain that level from the beginning to end, and that was extremely impressive.”

Roberto Bautista Agut also reached the quarterfinals as he followed up his first-round upset of Felix Auger-Aliassime by beating Pavel Kotov 6-1, 7-6 (5).

Marin Cilic, who lost the Tel Aviv final to Djokovic, had to come from behind to beat Oscar Otte 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-2 in the first round to set up a round-of-16 match against Karen Khachanov.